Dancing in the Middleton of nowhere

“STRAWBERRIES!” Admittedly they are delicious, but when you are woken up at 6.15am by an old woman shouting it through your window, they tend to lose their appeal.  Bleary-eyed I opened the door and tried to understand why a pensioner was shouting the name of a fruit at me, a fruit which I doubt has ever actually made it to Tuvalu.  It transpired that the old woman in question was head of the 'Cooking Committee' section of the 'Royal Visit Task Force' and she just had to have some strawberries to make the perfect dessert for Wills and Kate.  I tried to ask which traditional Tuvaluan dessert called for strawberries at 6.15am, but I don’t think she was impressed, particularly as the Royal couple were due to arrive the next day, and so she stormed off.  I just hoped it wasn’t going to be strawberries and cream.  I’ve had the so called 'cream' here, and you can imagine being thousands of miles away from the nearest cow, it requires a bit of imagination whilst eating it.

 Ready for the Royals...

Ready for the Royals...

This was just the sort of mad panic which had slowly descended on Funafuti in the last few days.  Despite having months to plan and prepare for the visit of the most famous couple in the world, the Pacific isn’t renowned for being good with deadlines, and so everything had been left to the last minute.  Frantic painting was accompanied by manic weaving, frenetic dance practices, and chaotic sweeping, giving Funafuti the air of productivity for probably the first time since the last Royal visit when the Queen popped over in 1982.  All the crazed productivity was being headed up by dozens of committees with the most specific roles such as 'Flower Garland Making Committee' and 'School Gift Making Committee' (there were two of these) unfortunately it seemed that instead of actually planning the elements of the visit, the committees were spending more time on coming up with their names, like the delectable 'Royal Visit Task Force' and deciding on what colour they should have their matching committee t-shirts, well you've got to look the part haven't you!

Despite the last minute rush, exemplified by the main maneapa being painted literally hours before Wills and Kate were supposed to be arriving, by the time the familiar siren sounded to signal a plane was approaching, Funafuti looked all dressed up, and ready to put on a show for the Royal couple.  Even the pouring rain, which looked as if it was out to ruin the day, couldn't dampen the excitement of the crowd as the sleek, bullet-like, private jet landed and managed to stop using only half of the already pretty short runway.

 Uplifting welcome to Tuvalu...

Uplifting welcome to Tuvalu...

Their Royal Highnesses glided off the plane and onto the wooden platform which this time last week was still a pile of wood at the public works department.  The platform was hoisted into the air by a small army of muscular men in traditional skirts, and less traditional white vests.

Middleton was looking elegant in a yellow dress and Wills was rocking the laid back and casual look in a smart suit without a tie – if you were hoping for a more in depth critique of their outfits, I’m sorry to disappoint, but that’s about as detailed as I get, except for that fact they were both wearing inappropriate shoes.  For those of you who want to know more about what they were wearing, check out What Kate Wore particularly the “young” and “stylish” Scout at the bottom of the article!

The big black cloud which had drenched the crowds just moments before the plane was supposed to land, seemed to have done a loop, and was once again looming heavily over the runway.  Fortunately the jubilant singing and colourfully dressed dancers and dignitaries did enough to keep the melancholy weather at bay, until a less than rousing rendition of the national anthem resembling a forced hymn at a school assembly, seemed to summon the rain and the crowds all dove to safety as umbrellas were rapidly produced for dignitaries, and Wills and Kate were hurried inside the local meeting house or maneapa for the official welcoming speeches.

 Kate is escorted to the welcoming ceremony...

Kate is escorted to the welcoming ceremony...

Kate is escorted to the welcoming ceremony…

We listened through the pouring rain as the grainy microphone transmitted the voices of the Prime Minister, the Governor General welcoming the Royal couple to Tuvalu, and outlining some of the day’s itinerary.  Then Wills took to the stand and gave a well written speech about the special relationship between Tuvalu and the Royal family, before having a crack at some Tuvaluan, which wasn’t bad for a first effort, and seemed to go down pretty well with the crowd.  Whilst waiting for the rain to stop Wills and Kate laughed and joked with some of the grass skirt clad Tuvaluan warriors also cowering from the rain, and seemed happy, relaxed, and professional – you never would have guessed that this was the final stop on a hectic tour schedule after only a few hours sleep the night before and a early flight.

 Drying out and meeting island chiefs...

Drying out and meeting island chiefs...

The rain began to ease, and so the “wet weather program” was put into action (no doubt argued and arranged by a separate “Wet Weather Committee” with their own t-shirts and group photos). First stop on the itinerary was the local primary school where the young people arranged themselves to make quite a formidable barrier between the Royals and the wet paint which had been liberally applied to every surface the day before to make it look shinier than usual.

A smile and a nod from the legendary Royal photographer Arthur Edwards who I had met a few months previously told me that Wills and Kate were about to leave the school and head to the University campus conveniently placed just across the road (The “Primary School to University Transition Committee” Clearly deserved their t-shirts)

  Nauti  Primary School out in force...

Nauti Primary School out in force...

I was politely pushing my way through the crowds (a skill honed on the central line in rush hour) in the hope of a good photo when I was stopped by a voice; “Excuse me are you Andy” said a posh, well clipped English accent which turned out belonged to a tall man in a dapper suit with the grand title of ‘Royal press secretary’.

“We’ve heard a great deal about you” he said reaching over the wire fence to shake my hand at quite an awkward angle.  “Why don’t you come round and say hello” he continued, still holding my hand but no longer shaking it – well you can’t turn down offers like that, so I strode confidently around the gathered policemen, and into the grounds of the University of the South Pacific campus where Wills and Kate were busily chatting to students.  “So you’re the Scout guy then” said the press secretary, who despite being soaked by the earlier downpour still managed to look pretty suave in his suit.  “Guilty as charged” I replied, which is strange as I have never uttered that phrase in my life, and most likely made me sound like a bit of a dickhead. 

“Oh right” said the press secretary clearly thinking I was a bit of a dickhead, “Well have you had a chance to meet the Duchess yet?” My eyes lit up, no, no I hadn’t but I would love to, what an amazing opportunity!  I tried to articulate this, but remembering my “Guilty as charged” clanger, I tried to play it more nonchalantly “Nah not yet, would be cool though I suppose” By now the press secretary had definitely decided I was a dickhead, but fortunately my friend Lizzie from the Foreign Office arrived, and saved me.  We talked logistics and decided that as the visit was currently behind schedule due to the rain, the best time to meet Their Royal Highnesses would be the following morning before the final fatele in the maneapa.  “That would be amazing!  Thank you so much” I practically shouted at the press secretary whilst shaking his hand far too vigorously.  He seemed to understand my excitement, and casually released his hand from mine and threw me a “see you tomorrow then” before I was asked to leave the University grounds by a policeman who had only just realised that I had walked past him about ten minutes earlier.

 Wills getting his feet wet...

Wills getting his feet wet...

The rest of the day was a Royal themed blur, racing my motorbike from location to location, and generally watching Royalty to Royal things, like drink coconuts from the tree the Queen planted during her visit, plant their own coconut trees (presumable for their children when they come and visit in 30 years time), start canoe races, laugh as half the competitors capsized in the large swell, play local sports, meet local children, and take a wander through the Tuvaluan village of local culture where Wills failed miserably to open a coconut (I bet Middleton could have done it!)

It was during their wander through the Tuvaluan village that they came right over to where I was standing and started to chat to some of the young people who were demonstrating the apparently traditional Tuvaluan skill of sandcastle making.  Wills proved himself to be a bit of a pro grabbing a conveniently placed union jack and pushing it into a pretty decent sandcastle, although I think they could have made a bigger one (clearly the “Sandcastle and Flag Placing Committee” were too busy deciding what design to have on their t-shirt).  Whilst Wills was playing in the sandpit, Kate wandered up and down chatting to the children, and then as she stood up to go, she caught my eye, looked at me, and gave me a smile which seemed to say either “Wow you’re good looking, I hope I get to meet you at some stage” or "What on earth is an English guy in a Scout uniform doing here?!"

 The Duchess - Always smiling...

The Duchess - Always smiling...

The day finished with more traditional dancing in the maneapa including a stunning performance from Middleton who really got into the swing of things and was fatele-ing like the best of them, unfortunately for Wills he just looked like someone’s uncomfortable uncle trying to dance at a wedding.

 Fairly conspicuouis in the crowd...

Fairly conspicuouis in the crowd...

Wednesday morning arrived, and I was up early to make sure I didn’t miss my window of opportunity.  I arrived at the maneapa at 7am and was met by the Niutao island community who had already been there for about an hour in order to practice their fatele which was to be the final farewell for Wills and Kate rounding off the visit and hopefully giving them a fond and happy memory of Tuvalu to go home with.  Having spent six weeks in Niutao earlier in the year it was an opportunity for me to catch up with lots of friends who had come from the outer islands to the capital especially for the visit, including the larger than life Inaki of Uncle Bulgaria Scouting fame.  He, along with some of the other Niutao Scouts, had been asked to sit in the front row of the fatele no more than five metres away from Wills and Kate, and would be the front line of the traditional singing and dancing which they had been meticulously rehearsing for the last few months.  Uncle B was obviously chuffed with his position in the line up and was eager to show me the exact spot he was to be sitting in, so we ducked past the security and into the maneapa, and sure enough there at the front of the fifty or so gathered men and women already sitting down, was a gap right in the middle ready for Inaki to sit in.

 Wills getting his sandcastle on...

Wills getting his sandcastle on...

As has so often happened during my time in Tuvalu I completely misread the situation, and after a rushed conversation with the community leader it transpired that the space reserved at the front of the maneapa directly opposite the future King of England and his wife, arguably two of the most famous people in the world wasn’t only reserved for Inaki, oh no, it was also reserved for a now very pale looking palagi wearing a Scout uniform.  I tried to play the 'official meeting' card, but another brief and much curter conversation with the secretary of foreign affairs made it clear that me meeting the Royals was about as likely to happen as it was for him to grow a sense of empathy and reason, but before I had time to dwell on his God-complex, I was sat down with the Niutao community and waiting to perform for Royalty.

 Getting ready to dance for Royalty...

Getting ready to dance for Royalty...

The crowds had started to gather outside, all the island chiefs and distinguished guests were sat expectantly inside, and I was still trying to figure out exactly what was going on.  Three shiny new land rovers arrived at the entrance to the maneapa and ejected their passengers into the middle of hushed excitement.  A small cheer erupted from the back of the maneapa as the doors of the final land rover swung open and revealed Middleton once again looking stunning in a summery dress (shoes still totally inappropriate) and Will looking a bit dishevelled and wearing the same suit as the day before – which made me feel better seeing as I was wearing yesterday’s Scout shirt, but then my clothes arrived in Tuvalu in a rucksack, his arrived in a private plane, so surely he could rectify that.

 Tuvalu Scout presenting Wills and Kate with a Tuvalu Scout scarf...

Tuvalu Scout presenting Wills and Kate with a Tuvalu Scout scarf...

After shaking the Prime Minister’s and the Governor general’s hands Wills and Kate walked towards the centre of the maneapa and found their seats.  As they sat down, they both glanced towards the front row, and scanned their way along it.  I made eye contact with the future King of England, and although a little confused, he managed a polite smile and a nod, and then it was Middleton’s turn.  I looked at her, she looked at me, and with a flutter of perfect eyelashes she silently said everything that she had clearly been aching to say since seeing me in the crowd the day before.  Although only a few seconds long, that glance spoke volumes, and the subtle quiver of eyelids and pupils told the story: “You’re that hot Scout guy from yesterday aren’t you?  I’m so impressed that you have integrated so well into local culture that you have been selected to dance in front of this clearly well practised group of actual Tuvaluans who know what they’re doing.  If only I had met you before Wills, I’m sure we could have had a long and happy life together, but alas, it wasn’t to be.  Fear not though, as you have my word that as soon as I’m back on the plane I will be texting my sister and telling her all about you, she has a real thing for guys in Scout uniforms and traditional grass skirts you know…”

Now I’m sure to everyone else Kate’s look was the look of bewilderment and confusion as to why a palagi wearing a Scout uniform was sat in the middle of a traditional Tuvaluan dance troupe, but to me and Kate, we know exactly what that look meant.  I obviously tried to respond with my own series of subtle eye movements, saying that I couldn’t wait to meet Pippa so we could all go out on a double date to Laser Quest or something, but then realised that I looked like I was having a seizure so stopped and simply smiled instead.

In a whirlwind of grass skirts the Niutao dancers manoeuvred into a circle around the community leaders who began their haunting chant which was followed by the rest of the group with perfect tone and timing.  Having not been at any of the previous practices and having only a slightly better grasp of the Tuvaluan language than Wills, I struggled to keep up with what was going on.  This was not good, I was supposed to be performing for the Royals, this is probably the only chance I will have to sing and dance in front of a future king, I needed to up my game.  Fortunately there is a high amount of clapping involved in fatele and without wanting to sound arrogant; I am bloody good at clapping.  So that’s what I did, I stopped trying to sing and dance, and proceeded to clap along whilst looking over at Wills and Kate and probably doing a good job of convincing them I was still having a seizure.

 The ladies LOVE a man in uniform...

The ladies LOVE a man in uniform...

Luckily my clapping didn’t ruin the ambience, and the fatele seemed to achieve what it set out to do, and provided the perfect, traditional end to a Royal visit which even if briefly, put a spotlight on Tuvalu and Tuvaluan culture.  After a final speech from the Prime Minister the Niutao community (including their palagi imposter) escorted the Royals, once again being held aloft on their platform down the runway and back to their silver bullet of a plane.  Wills and Kate were in Tuvalu for less than 24 hours, but the impact of the visit will be felt for a long time.  Throughout the visit they were calm, funny, personable, and professional despite a lengthy tour and the pressures of global newspapers publishing unwanted photos.  Although gutted I didn’t get to meet them, just being able to witness something so big was an incredible experience, and at least I have Pippa’s number to look forward to when they get home.

© Andy Browning 2012